Jenufa/Tosca, Hackney Empire, London

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The Independent Culture

The company's Jenufa is truly astounding. Based on Gabriela Preissova's terrifying drama of Moravian peasant life, Jeji Pastorkyna ("Her Foster-daughter"), which fits the composer's emerging folk-style like a glove, the opera was completed in 1901-3, but not staged until 1916, in Prague. ETO's cast is stunning: Dwayne Jones's Laca, Richard Roberts's Steva and the gorgeous Amanda Echalaz - last year's Alcina - as Jenufa (despite some disappointing diction in Act I) were all wonderful in their way, and should be snapped up by Garsington, Grange Park or Glyndebourne.

Best by a mile, however (and that came as no surprise) was the spectacularly brilliant Anne Mason as the crazed murderess and child-killer, Kostelnicka. What a psychological thriller this proves, with its myriad of mixed motives. But that's Preissova's skill (turn-of-the-century Czech opera had a surfeit of remarkable female dramatists), even before you add Janacek's electrifying music.

The conductor Michael Rosewell excelled himself in the pit, abetted by some wonderful playing (truly shivering middle and lower strings, not least). I particularly liked Eddie Wade's admirably sung Mill Foreman; the mayoral group was amusing, too.

As for ETO's new Tosca, its principal trio sings pretty splendidly, too, although Sean Ruane as Cavaradossi brings an unnerving beauty of voice, while Michael Bracegirdle - much improved and better focused since his impressive and forceful Don José in Stowe Opera's Carmen - offers more tragic intensity. Julie Unwin's Tosca could soon come very good, but her acting is still tentative, and she tends to shout the big tunes. Craig Smith's hand-wringing Scarpia is a brilliant match for Christopher Lee's Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. Watch closely: he doesn't miss a trick.

Noel Davies could surely draw more delicacy from the orchestra, however: the violins positively creaked.

Touring to 27 May (www.englishtouringopera.org.uk)

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